Several thousand guestworkers from Mexico and Guatemala won a judicial victory when a federal judge ordered the company they worked for to reimburse them more than $10 million in unpaid wages, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

"The court sent a strong and clear message in this case that businesses employing guestworkers will be held accountable if they abuse or mistreat them," Jim Knoepp, the senior supervising attorney for the SPLC, said of the verdict.

"Employers are now on notice that exploiting these workers will prove devastatingly costly," he said.

The federal court ordered Eller and Sons Trees Inc. to pay a total of 4,000 workers from Guatemala and Mexico the sum of $11.8 million in compensation.

SPLC filed suit against Eller and Sons, based in Franklin, Georgia, in 2005 on behalf of the laborers in order to establish a precedent, even though many of the guestworkers had already returned to their home countries.

The lawsuit, Escolastico de Leon-Granados et al. v. Eller and Sons Trees, Inc., cited a series of violations against minimum-salary and overtime laws.

Besides violation of the minimum wage, the plaintiffs alleged that Eller did not reimburse employees for their travel expenses to the United States and did not count their hours of work correctly, as stipulated in the contract the workers signed as part of the H-2B visa program.

The judge ruled that as a result these costs gave laborers a "negative income" during their first week of working for the company.

"Our pay would come out to approximately $25 for a 12-hour workday," lead plaintiff Escolastico de Leon-Granados said. "At the end of the season, I had only saved $500 to send home to my family."

Knoepp noted the significance of this case in setting a key precedent in favor of guestworkers.

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